College of Medicine student earns research excellence award

Penn State College of Medicine graduate student Emily Swartz has won the 2013 Michael Goldberger Research Excellence Award, presented by the National Neurotrauma Society. She is a student of Dr. Gregory M. Holmes, associate professor of neural and behavioral sciences.

Swartz’s research is on gastrointestinal function following spinal cord injury. Her research suggests that the loss of normal function in the blood vessels after a spinal cord injury leads to a loss of adequate blood flow to the digestive tract. An inflammatory response develops from this lack of blood flow, which triggers a cascade of problems that reduce digestive function.

“In addition to the loss of walking and sensation, people with a spinal cord injury are also subject to health issues that are separate from the primary injury,” Holmes explained. “These changes are not as widely recognized by the public, but they are significant challenges to the quality of life for the paralyzed individual.”

Swartz’s abstract was one of 20 selected nationally. She was then judged on an oral presentation of her work at the annual National Neurotrauma Society Meeting that was held in August in Nashville, Tenn. The top four students receive awards named after neuroscientists who have made significant contributions to the field of neurotrauma.

“Emily’s strong showing was gratifying in that the changes in autonomic nervous system function after a spinal cord injury have always received little attention. Restoration of walking has always been the focus,” Holmes said. “In fact, my lab at Penn State College of Medicine is the only research lab in the world focusing on gastrointestinal issues following a spinal cord injury.”

It is fitting that Swartz won the Michael Goldberger award. This award is awarded on score, not by field of investigation. The late Goldberger was himself a scientist with an interest in spinal cord injury. The other three awards presented honor traumatic brain injury specialists. 

“Many of us in the spinal cord injury field are gratified that Emily won an award for the same area of research as the man it’s named after,” Holmes said. “Only three of the 20 students’ work focused on spinal cord injury.”

Swartz said the award was a moment of reflection.

“Research can be both frustrating and rewarding at the same time: negative data is still data, hard work is never enough work, collaboration is essential to succeeding,” Swartz said. “This award taught me all of those things in one brief moment.”  

“Our work in spinal cord injury and autonomic dysfunction is a small step toward, hopefully, figuring out how to restore function after such a devastating injury. This reminded me why every frustration, each reward, the innumerable data sets, endless hard work, and every single collaboration, small or large, are all key to succeeding in research.”

For Holmes, the award is a step forward for the field.

“While women have made considerable progress in the neurotrauma field, the field is still male-dominated in some respects,” he said. “Emily is developing into a shining star at Penn State College of Medicine, and I am thrilled to have her as my student.”

Swartz had similar words about her mentor.

“I owe a significant thank you to Dr. Holmes, the principal investigator, for training and guiding me in the research,” she said. “His mentorship has pushed me to strive towards greatness and his encouragement has helped me reach that. I thank God for the talents and opportunities given, and I’d also like to thank my fiancé, family and friends for the never-ending support and motivation.”

The National Institutes of Health and the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense fund Dr. Holmes’ research.

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Last Updated October 21, 2013